Faes and the Natural World

Cicely Bridget Martin, The Fairy in the Meadow, 1909

As I observe in my latest book, Faeries in the Natural World, there is a strong prevailing view at present that the faes are intimately connected to the environment and are actively concerned about pollution and habitat degradation, sometimes working with human intermediaries to mitigate harm and to reverse changes. This view has been around since the 1960s, when the environmental movement first began to appear.

An early literary example of the developing sense that human industrialisation and pollution could actively injure faery kind comes from Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath (1963). The elves of this story suffer from “smoke sickness.” They complain that “it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar [the light elves of Norse myth] to the trackless places and the broken lands… You should hear their lungs. That is what men have done.” This is a clear indictment of human society in the wake of the first environmental classic, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962.

Even before that, though, there was a strong belief that there was antipathy between faes and modern life. Numerous writers from the mid-Victorian period onwards alleged that trains, noise, smoke and general encroachment on the countryside was steadily driving faeries into the remoter and less inhabited spots; Welsh writers in particular argued this, but any more rural location where commerce trespassed- quarrying or mills in the Lake District, the Highlands and on the Isle of Man or Shetland, for example- was recognised as antithetical to the faery and trow populations. The 1909 painting at the head of this post is another illustration; we might be surprised that such a sensitivity comes from the Edwardian period, but there it is: the British artist, Cicely Bridget Martin (1879-1947), could see the contradiction between faery life and the litter left behind by human picnickers. A hundred years later, though, and we would pretty much take such a barbed comment on waste and wildlife damage for granted.

None of this withstanding, the folklore evidence that associates the faeries with an environmentalist position is a good deal more limited than we might anticipate. That’s not to say that evidence for “eco-faeries” doesn’t exist (pixies are described protecting foxes from hunts or caring for wildlife in winter, for example, as well as their sometimes intimate associations with certain trees and flowers) but it can be found alongside the faeries setting up their own mines, mills and dye works and such like (see my recent book, How Things Work in Faery for full details of this). Victorian poets and painters delighted in emphasising the faes’ links to nature: suggesting that they paint butterflies’ wings, for instance, and it is very likely that these images have been influential in shaping subsequent generations’ views of the place of the faeries in the natural world. As much as anything, their ‘green’ credentials derive from the fact that they live in the woods and fields- from which we assume that they must want to defend the natural world. I’d say a fairer reading would be to say that they want to defend their homes and resources from human disruption and invasion; they want to carry on using that land themselves as they choose. As they happen to be have fairly non-industrialised and non-intensive economy, this gives the impression that they are all for sustainability, low carbon and rewilding. I suspect this is really a matter of us humans applying our labels to their motives: coupled with a large degree of guilt.

Certainly, the latter half of the last century saw a steep rise in the perception that the faeries were alarmed over the climate crisis and the degradation of ecosystems- and that they wanted to recruit humans to help halt the damage they were doing. Quite often too, for that matter, Pan and the nymphs of the natural world- and the devas of the Theosophists- were also heard to deliver the same messages. However we may wish to interpret this (as warnings from the supernatural world or, perhaps, as expressions of the human witnesses’ own unconscious worries) the import is the same: the situation is urgent and humans need to take into account the welfare of those beings that can’t express their distress.

Eileen Soper, Silky and the Snail

For fuller discussion of all aspects of the faery relationship to the natural world, see my latest book from Green Magic Publishing. This looks not only at the environmentalism of the faes, but also examines how Faery affects the fertility of humans as well as their livestock, considers how faeries influence the weather, how they interact with a range of wild animals, plants, trees and fungi and the locations with which they are most closely associated in the natural world- not just faery rings but wells, high places and ancient sites.

“On a mission from God”-do fairies have a divine purpose?

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani

Estella Canziani, Fairies bless the newborn child.

There is an identifiable strand of thought about modern fairies that wishes to see them as part of a wider divine plan.  I wrote a little while ago about the ideas of Paracelsus on fairies and I think his insistence upon his elementals being part of God’s creation and allotted a purpose within the universe have been a major contributor to this ‘mission from god’ idea.

Satanic servants?

This is quite a turn-around, because formerly, as I described in my jottings on fairy religion, the Christian church had spent most of its history attacking fairies and condemning fairy belief. Fairies were demons or, at the very best, delusions sent by the devil to lead us astray.  This had always been the orthodox belief of the Catholic church and, after the Reformation, the position was expressed with renewed vigour and venom by Protestant preachers.  Quite unfairly, post-Lutheran polemicists made out that one of the many superstitions fostered by Rome was the existence of fairies.

As these beings were nothing more or less than servants of Satan, there could be never be any accommodation with them and the Christian church was directly opposed to them.  This is very clearly shown in a story from Borgue in Kirkcudbright: a boy started to disappear for days at a time and it was realised that he was visiting the fairies underground.  To protect the child, he was taken to a local priest and was given a large crucifix to wear on a black ribbon around his neck (although, this being dour, Protestant Scotland, the local kirk then expelled the family for such Papist goings on).

Over the intervening centuries, there have been attempts to find some sort of accommodation between fairies and the Biblical view of the universe.  In A discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits, which was appended to the 1665 edition of Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, one of several such arguments was set out:

“God made the Fairies, Bugs, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow and other familiar domestical spirits and Devils on the Friday and, being prevented with the evening of the Sabbath, finished them not, but left them unperfect, and therefore ever since they use to flie the holiness of the Sabbath, seeking dark holes in Mountains and Woods, wherein they hide themselves til the end of the Sabbath and then come abroad to trouble and molest men.” (Book I c.XI)

This passage is an excellent compromise between divine omnipotence and the need to explain these anomalous spirits- not quite demons, not quite angels. We may compare the belief in Cornwall that the local pixies were either the souls of still-born children or of newborn babies who died before they could be baptised.

Despite these conflicting theories, the fairies’ position is clear in one sense: they are not godly beings and, as such, are averse to all things Christian.  This was very widely reflected in popular belief, in which a sure charm against fairy harm was anything in the least related to religion- whether it was the sign of the cross, the use of blessings or, even, the deployment of pages torn from a Bible or a prayer book as defence against elf attack.  Any item or turn of phrase with Christian connotations came to be seen as protection against fairy powers: for example, in William Bottrell’s story of An’ Pee Tregear, the old woman sees pixies threshing in a barn.  She hears a pixie sneeze and instinctively says ‘bless you’- causing them all to disappear (Traditions and hearthside stories, vol.2 p.154).

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Hester Margetson, Bluebell in fairyland.

Fays and angels

You wouldn’t necessarily know today that any of this very marked antipathy ever existed between mainstream Christianity and a belief in fairies.  For example, Doreen Virtue in Fairies 101 (2007) describes the fays as “God’s creatures with important missions” and as “angels who reside close to earth.”  In her Healing with fairies of 2001 she claims them as sparks of the divine light, part of God’s wondrous creation.  Their role is as guides and helpers to humans and as guardians of nature.

Other contemporary writers take a pagan approach, but still infuse their descriptions with a sacred vocabulary.  Alicen and Neil Geddes-Ward derive their Faeriecraft from modern Wicca and refer to the “sacred nature” of the fairies, with whom we can build a “divine relationship.”  Sirona Knight and Deanna Conway both associate the fairies with the God and Goddess; Rae Beth refers to the Great Mother.

Particularly in the accommodation of fairies with Christian belief, the danger seems to me to be to subordinate them to whatever divine purpose is perceived by the author and to reduce or eliminate the free will and the individuality of the fairies themselves.  Once they have their mission from God, they can lose their own motivations and agenda and come to be viewed solely through their relationship to us and to their holy duty.  Much as with the reconstitution of fairies as nature spirits and elementals, devoted to saving the planet, I think there’s a lot of projection of our own concerns and needs onto them and too little regard for the evidence of tradition.

Selfish supernaturals?

In her 2017 book Fairies Morgan Daimler states in no uncertain terms that the fairies

“have never cared about the things we do to the world around us so long as we leave their places alone.”

This encapsulates the traditional fairies’ selfishness perfectly: they are protective of their favoured spots- but that’s all.  Morgan also points out that the faes can always go back to the otherworld in any case (Fairies, pp.4 & 174).  She’s quite right; it might be nice to personify nature in order to give ourselves a bit of extra impetus to clear up the mess we’ve made, but the fairies and elves of folklore would probably take the view that it’s nothing to do with them.  We wrecked the place, so we should put it right- and, meanwhile, they’ve got better things to do.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but a lot of the British fairies are just that: they steal property, they kidnap children, they torment adults, they kill livestock and people.

Reading the posts I’ve made on this blog or reading any of the accounts contained in the folklore sources that I’ve depended upon, it is hard honestly to see anything about the national fairies that could entitle them to be seen as “divine sparks.”  Often, albeit for different reasons, you feel that the medieval and Reformation church men had made a better assessment.  Faerie can be mercenary and it can be cruel and its denizens can appear devoid of any hint of holy fervour.  A Victorian author said that the Devonshire pixies “had no religious rites or services.”  Most others similarly lacked any discernible faith or ceremonies.  How and when did the fairies get religion?

Pixies and Paradise?

Paracelsus sowed the seed, but I think it was only in the wake of Theosophy that we became convinced that the fays had to be part of a bigger plan.   For example, Manly P. Hall (1901-90) and the Reverend Flower A. Newhouse (1909-94) both wrote extensively on the angelic and fairy hierarchies.  Newhouse called the fairies ‘frakins’ and saw them as a lower order of earth elemental, responsible for flowering plants and grasses.  Above them were sylphs, gnomes and elves, leading successively to the angels.  Her books include Natives of eternity (1937), The kingdom of the shining ones (1955) and Rediscovering angels and natives (1966), the titles all being suggestive of her general approach.

Daphne Charters was author of The origin, life and evolution of fairies (1951) and A true fairy tale (1956).  She claimed to have daily conversations with the small workforce of fairies resident in her home and garden.  She saw the entire natural and human world as being run by these industrious creatures, beings who ‘covered every inch’ of the visible and invisible universe.  In many ways Charters’ theories built upon those of Geoffrey Hodson (as in his book The kingdom of God) , but she disagreed with his views in two ways.  Firstly, his belief was the fairies could not speak, whereas she was in constant, chatty dialogue with her good neighbours.  Secondly, her vision of a hierarchy of nature spirits was far more systematic and orderly than Hodson’s.  Charters discovered a scale of being from the microscopic, simple and short-lived rudines all the way up to God.  The intermediate stages included gnomes, elves and fairies, each longer-lived, larger and more mentally developed that the other.

Iris Ratsey was another Christian medium and mystic.  Her little 1966 book, Pioneering in conscious and co-operative mediumship, is a strange mix of prayers, meditations and visions. From an early age she had regularly seen fairies and, in the text, she describes a visit to “higher dimensional territory” where she witnessed the “sub-human or etheric nature species” responsible for the growth of wheat seeds and describes their ecstatic life cycle.  Ratsey stated that her visions of tiny elfin creatures gave her “a sense of divine presence” explicitly linking her contact with Faery with religious experience.

What do the fairies want?

Fairies have been promoted in recent decades into a force for good.  They are seen as having a role assisting us with our moral and/or spiritual development and are appealed to and worked with on this basis by several faery faiths.  My caution with this depiction of the fairy race is that it is very hard to square it with the traditional sources.  An honest assessment of those would be that the fairy race is, at best, amoral (and at worst immoral) in the sense that faes can be cruel, selfish and demonstrate little respect for property.  There is very little ‘divine’ about them.  They don’t want our prayers; they aren’t interested in petitioners; they are a separate race living in parallel to humans whose good will can’t be bought.  What they want from us is tribute, not worship; they’re interested in taxes or booty rather than sacrifice.

In many respects, the fairy attitude to human beings as delineated in the folklore accounts is one akin to a colonial or conquering state, which seeks to derive income and resources from a tributary people.  This fits very well with the fairies’ practices of abducting adults and children, of stealing food products and food sources and their general possessiveness in respect of human property.  This may seem harsh- yet it encapsulates some of the core dynamics of our relationship.  In light of this, it is harder to recast the fay character as benevolent and non-materialist, as some modern conceptions wish to do.

 

 

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Shakespeare

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Tiny fairies

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book  The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’

 

“Full of Fairy elves”- William Blake and fairies

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796

This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies.  This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awakea fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.

Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life!  Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.”  From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.

wb-penseroso_-v

Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”

The character of Blake’s fays

In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:

  • primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain.  In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
  • they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time.  In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
  • along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world.  They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity.  For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
  • closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life.  In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.”  He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.”  In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason.  In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:

“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”

  • the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality.  In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:

“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”

The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring.  It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken.  This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing.  The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-

“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”

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Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.

Blake’s tiny fairies

These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated  by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing.  We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small.  There are numerous examples of this:

  • An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti,  describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.”  Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
  • In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
  • An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
  • In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse.  In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape.  He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
  • Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”

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Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies

Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.

My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback.  I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

albion

Further reading

I have discussed William Blake in several other posts: I consider his views on fairy origins, on the nature of the magical realm of Albion and how Blake’s art and poetry has influenced later generations of artists, writers and visionaries.